The Return to Realism. If the history of mankind had terminated with the nineteenth century, the last tendency of thought to be recorded would have been the return to Realism. The abbreviated account which follows of the philosophy of the nineteenth century will explain and illustrate this tendency. Before we set this forth, however, it may be well to define again the nature of Realism. What is Realism? In general it is the belief that reality or realities exist quite independent of anybody’s knowing them. Moreover, Realism has the distinction of being one of the four great types of metaphysical thought. These types are Realism, Mysticism, Critical-rationalism, and Idealism.74 In other words, Realism is an attitude of mind possible to a whole civilization. This is what is meant by a great philosophical type. The Idealism of the period which we have just studied is such a type. Although Germany had been the leading representative of Idealism, the spread of philosophical and literary Idealism had been world-wide. All nations had shared in it. But when the great events and the romancing spirit of that period had passed, the reaction to Realism was likewise felt the world over. It is the period of this reaction that we are briefly to consider.
The Character of the Realism of the Nineteenth Century. We have already discussed the nature of the Realism of ancient civilization as it appeared in Plato’s theory of Ideas; and we also have reviewed the variation of Plato’s doctrine in mediæval times. Both ancient and mediæval societies give expression through Plato to Realistic conceptions—ancient society to an æsthetic Realism, mediæval to an ecclesiastical Realism. Now in the modern period we find a still different kind. The Realism of the nineteenth century has been that of natural science. The question of the nineteenth century has been, What degree of importance has the scientific conception of phenomena in our total conception of life? German Idealism had taken up the natural science of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, and had made it a part of a world conceived as cosmic Reason. But in the nineteenth century the conception of the cosmic Reason and that of nature part company. The two conceptions begin to stand in antithesis. Nature is conceived as a reality existing in sublime independence. Democritus wins his victory over Spinoza. There are two reasons for this: (1) The ideas of science are expressed with a clearness and distinctness that is in marked contrast with the ideas of German romanticism. Natural science is formulated mathematically and demonstrated in experience, and natural science moreover does not require the labor of interpretation. (2) Natural science proves its usefulness, thereby responding to the imperative needs of the economic changes of the nineteenth century.
In this modern period the attention of man has been riveted upon his environment. If at any time the man of the nineteenth century has seemed to be interested in man, the interest has really been in man’s relation to his environment. The nineteenth century has championed the necessary laws and mechanical structure of the outer world against man himself. The universe has been enthroned; man has become its serf. Human effort has become slave to its own progress. Work has been apotheosized—work in the outer world, work with the hands. Inventions in material things have multiplied. The nineteenth century has been the period of steam, of electricity, of machinery, of factories, of the enormous increase in the number and size of cities, of the minute division of labor. Social and economic rather than metaphysical problems have commanded attention. Not another and ideal world, but this present world, is the one in which the modern man has lived. The sciences have been specialized and man has become practical. Hegel would have said of our time that the cosmic Reason had been so engaged in concrete and external realities, that it had had no time to turn within and scrutinize itself. If one wishes to turn back the leaves of history for centuries similar to the nineteenth in their spirit, one will find them in the third and second centuries B. C. and the fourteenth and fifteenth of the present era. Nevertheless, there is this to be said about modern Realism in comparison with the Realism of preceding periods—the preceding Realism had been critical, negative in its practical results, and usually an opposition to tradition or a reaction from it; modern Realism has been distinguished by its positive practical results, its ambition for supremacy, and its shaping of the whole direction of the life of man. It has assumed control of religion, art, and social morality, to the end of the well-being of the whole.
Modern Philosophy and German Idealism. The nineteenth century has been remarkable in the extent of its historical, literary, and scientific productions. It has been poor in its philosophical ideas, when we compare it with the preceding romantic movement of the German Idealists. To be sure, there has been much philosophical literature with a great variety of doctrine, but the many personally impressive structures have on the whole been only the re-shaping of former thought. It has sometimes seemed as if some of the philosophic doctrines of this time were about to take original shape; but none have ever reached it, with the possible exception of the doctrine of historical evolution.
The explanation of the uncreative character of modern thought is found in its relation to the Idealism which preceded it. The German Idealists had conquered the world of the spirit, but in spite of all their efforts the realm of empirical facts remained stubborn to all their romancing. Even Hegel, the greatest among them, had not succeeded in completely penetrating history by his dialectic law. Already in the eighteenth century a Realistic movement had been stirring in England and France, and had made notable achievements. So the Idealists turned to the study of the facts of life—partly in order to subordinate them to their Idealism, partly because a great interest had appeared in the study of the records of the past. The origin and history of religions, of law, of languages, of art, of institutions formed topics of study within the Romantic circle. A remarkable list of books was published by the Romanticists on these subjects between the date of the battle of Waterloo (1815) and that of the death of Hegel (1831). After Hegel died no adequate successors in speculative power came to take the place of the old Idealistic leaders, but the interest in empirical science was borne on by many men of genius. The study of empirical phenomena was extended to all branches; biology and geology, which were late in being studied historically, began to occupy the centre of the stage. In spite of the fact that the nearness of modern philosophical theories blinds us to their true perspective, yet even now we can see that in comparison with the German Idealism the philosophical doctrines of the nineteenth century are partial in their survey of the field. The whole problem of life was before the eyes of the Idealists; the modern world about 1831 shifted its attention to a critical scrutiny of only one part of that problem. The philosophical problem to the Idealists was the problem of the cosmos; the philosophical problem to the nineteenth century was concerned only with a reëxamination of the environment of man.
The Philosophical Problems of the Nineteenth Century. In summarizing what we have above said, we have before us a situation something as follows. Idealism had run its course as a social attitude of mind, and about 1831 the leaders of Idealism had died with no one to fill their places. But within Idealism between 1815 and 1831 there had arisen a great empirical interest in the origins of history, law, philology, etc. Side by side with this empirical interest there had come certain economic conditions that had called forth and rewarded genius in natural science.
Thus we find even before the fourth decade of the nineteenth century two strong tendencies: (1) a new conception of the meaning of history as an evolution from origins; and (2) a remarkable interest in the natural sciences. The two tendencies modified each other. The historical view of the world exercised a powerful influence upon natural science; natural science had to be reckoned with in the writing of history. History and natural science were drawn together, but without producing a new philosophical conception that would include them both.
From the interaction of these two powerful tendencies the great variety of philosophical interests were grouped around two general problems. These were (1) The problem of the functioning of the soul; (2) The problem of the conception of history.
1. The Problem of the Functioning of the Soul. With the decline of metaphysics and the reaction from speculation, psychology began to loosen from its anchorage in philosophy. Psychology, which had been a study of mind, now became the study of the relation of mind and body. The tendency was strong to make psychology an empirical science, and by the use of the methods of science to become a part of physiology and biology. Philosophy has been a nest in which all the sciences have been brooded. Psychology has been the last to attempt to leave the nest, and to-day in some of our large universities it is coördinated in the curriculum with the natural sciences. Deprived of a basis in philosophy, psychology turned to natural science for support. Concerning the relation of the soul to the body many solutions have been offered.
Following the Sensationalist, Cabanis, who died in 1808, some of the French Ideologists, so-called, concluded that the soul is everywhere determined by physical influences, such as age, sex, temperament, climate, etc.; some said that the mind is a result of brain activity; some developed the conception of phrenology, according to which the shape of the skull determines the faculties of the mind. The French Ideologists differed widely in their interpretations, but on the whole the basis of the movement was materialism. The hypothesis of phrenology aroused great interest in England, but John Stuart Mill led the movement back to Hume’s associational psychology. He conceived the psychical and the physical states as two separate realms, and he concluded that psychology as the study of the laws of mental states cannot reduce mental states to physical. So Sir William Hamilton, under the influence of Kant, championed the life of inner experience.
Of course the materialistic challenge of the soul aroused great heat in theological circles. The personality of God and the nature of the soul became burning questions, and led to the dissolution of the Hegelian school into “the right wing” and “the left wing.” Hegel had always maintained his standing in orthodox circles as the Prussian “State philosopher.” Those followers who composed the “right wing” tried to interpret his doctrine in accordance with the traditional theological conception of the soul; the “left wing” interpreted Hegel as a pantheist, in whose doctrine the soul could not be considered as a substance with immortality. Feuerbach followed this by inverting Hegelianism into a nominalistic materialism, and conceived the soul as nature “in its otherness.” In 1854, at a convention of naturalists in Germany, the materialistic conception of the soul was found to be widely spread among the German physicians and naturalists. But the contradiction between the inferences of science and “the needs of the heart” became a subject of controversy, and in 1860, under the leadership of Kuno Fischer, the “return to Kant” was begun, which lasted throughout the nineteenth century.
There are two names that stand out most prominently in relation to this controversy over the nature of the soul: they are those of Lotze (1817–1881) and Fechner (1801–1887). They are names that were conjured with by the generation of American scholars before the present. Lotze regarded the mechanical necessity of nature as the form in which the impulsive mental life of man realizes its purposes. Every soul therefore has a life that consists essentially in purposeful relations with other souls. And this is possible only if the lives of men are under an all-embracing Providence. Fechner chose another way to escape from the materialistic tendency. He regarded the soul and body as separate and qualitatively different, although exactly corresponding, manifestations of one unknown reality. There is a parallelism between the mental and the physical, in which the mental phenomena are known only to the individual perceiving them. As sensations are the surface waves of a total individual consciousness, so the consciousnesses of human beings are the surface waves of a universal consciousness. The mechanical activity of nature corresponds to the consciousness of God. We can investigate this correspondence by studying the correspondence between our own mental states and physical states. This is the modern well-known psychological method of psycho-physics. We can measure psychical quantities by formulating mathematical laws of their occurrence.
Our present psychology has seen a development from all these earlier explanations; but this is a matter of contemporary writing and not of history.
2. The Problem of the Conception of History. The contrast in the Kantian teaching between nature and mind became an antagonism in the nineteenth century. When psychology was no longer a purely mental science, social life in its historical development at first withstood the vigorous march of the natural science of the nineteenth century. But the inroads of science in psychology were duplicated in the field of sociology, and thus the problem of society was only the problem of the soul on a larger scale.
The first form that this problem took arose from the opposition in France between the traditional conception of society and that of the philosophy of the Revolution. The nineteenth century French philosophy has, however, a religious coloring that differentiates it from that of the Revolution. Auguste Comte75 (1798–1857) stands as the chief representative of this scientific reduction of society. He pushed the doctrines of Hume and Condillac to their extreme in his positivist system of social science. He maintained that human knowledge had as its objects phenomena in their reciprocal relations, but that there is nothing absolute at the basis of these phenomena. The only absolute principle is, All is relative. There is a hierarchy of sciences in which sociology is highest. Sociology includes all the preceding sciences, and yet it is the original fact. The first social phenomenon is the family. The stages of the development of society are (1) theological, (2) metaphysical, and (3) positivistic or scientific. All mental life in detail, and human history as a whole, are subject to these stages of growth. In the positivistic stage mankind will be the object of religious veneration, and the lives of great men will be justified because they have raised the lives of common men. The democracy to which Comte looks is one ruled by great minds, and is not a socialism. In contrast to Comte’s theory is that of Buckle, who would study history by discovering the mechanical laws governing society.
While human history was thus being invaded by natural science and had to defend its autonomy against the naturalistic principle of science, natural science on the other hand was in the nineteenth century invaded by the historical principle of evolution. Natural science becomes a history. We have seen that in the Romantic circle there was great interest in the origin and development of law, philology, art, etc. In the beginning and middle of the nineteenth century this interest spread to an investigation of the origin of animal life. This investigation has been the most notable in this century, because (1) it included in its scope the source and means of progress of the human race; and because (2) it advanced a new conception of development. Development now becomes evolution. Up to the nineteenth century the world was looked upon as a graded series of types, but no type was supposed to evolve into another. (See vol. i, pp. 180, 193; vol. ii, p. 306.) The theory of historical evolution of the nineteenth century is notable because it advanced the conception, based upon empirical investigation, that types are changed into others. This theory, among those of the century, comes the nearest to an original philosophical doctrine. The book that became the centre of scientific interest for many years was Darwin’s Origin of Species, published in 1859. The name most prominently linked with that of Darwin is that of Herbert Spencer, who attempted to make universal the principle of development and to formulate its law.
The modern theory of the historical evolution of animal life has reinforced the mechanical principle of nature, which had its origin in the minds of the philosophers of the Renaissance. It has antagonized the theological doctrine of creation; it has related the animal and man by filling in the supposably impassable gulf between them; it has advanced the doctrine of chemical synthesis against the hylozoistic notion of a vital principle; it has pushed forward with great assurance its theories of transformation and equivalence of forces, and of the action of electricity as a substitute for thought-activity; it has shown a wonderful parsimony in giving a value to all the facts of history which had hitherto been conceived as trivial; and on the other hand it has reduced the conception of mighty cosmic cataclysms to a geological series of gradual gradations. Darwin’s place in this movement of the nineteenth century was this: he tried to show that animal life can be explained without the aid of final causes. In other words, the adaptation of the structure of animals can be accounted for mechanically. The factors involved in the development of organic life upon the earth were, according to Darwin, infinite differentiation, adaptation, natural selection, and the survival of the fittest.
Now at the beginning of the twentieth century there seems to be a reaction from the scientific positivism of the last century. This has taken the form of an extravagant mysticism, although at heart it is an optimism and an idealism.